Class action lawsuit filed against Mississippi county

Oct. 18 marked 11 months of waiting for Octavious Burks.

Burks spent that time inside the Scott County Detention Center in Forest, Mississippi, waiting for a grand jury indictment and a public defender.

On Sept. 23, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against Scott County on behalf of Burks and Joshua Bassett, another inmate who spent nine months in the same jail. The lawsuit alleges that the county violated the inmates’ constitutional rights to counsel, a speedy trial and a fair bail hearing.

“The ACLU is upset that these people have languished in jail for eight to 10 months without ever being represented by a lawyer,” said Jerry Joplin, professor of justice & policy studies. “That sounds legitimate to me. Somebody should not lose their liberty just because they’ve been accused of a crime.”

Both Burks and Basset made initial appearances before Justice Court Judge Bill Freeman on the days of their respective arrests, Nov. 18, 2013 and Jan. 3, 2014. In these initial appearances, the judge combined several business items into one shorter session. But in most other places, judges handle those tasks in as many as four separate hearings.

“These guys were taken to court with only the arresting officer, one judge and no lawyer present, and they did the initial appearance, the preliminary hearing and the bail hearing all at one time,” said Joplin.

In the suit, the ACLU alleges that this practice violated the plaintiffs’ rights to a fair bail hearing. The group charges that Burks and Bassett should have had access to a lawyer and that the judge did not appropriately take their financial status into account when setting their bail.

“The 14th Amendment provides against unreasonably high bails,” said Early College senior Porter Jones in an email interview. “Otherwise, judges could essentially hold every poor individual in jail without even giving them a (fair) chance at bail.”

Neither Burks nor Bassett could make their respective $30,000 and $100,000 bail set at their hearings.

“I only draw a little over $600 a month,” said Bassett’s mother Brenda in an interview with The New York Times. “I would give everything I have to get my son out of this mess. But, I don’t have anything.”

After the hearing, both Burks and Bassett filed requests for a public defender from the senior circuit judge, Marcus Gordon, as allowed by Mississippi law. Although he approved their requests, Gordon refused to appoint an attorney until a grand jury indicted them.

“The reason (for this) is the public defender would go out and spend his time and money and cost the county money in investigating the matter,” said Gordon in a brief interview with The New York Times. “And then, sometimes, the defendant is not indicted by the grand jury.”

But Mississippi is one of several states including North Carolina that do not have limits on how long a defendant can be held without an indictment. This allows long delays between the time a defendant is arrested and the time he receives a lawyer.

“That means no one is advocating for their interests, including filing and arguing motions for a bond reduction, or investigating potential defenses,” said Danielle Carman, assistant director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services, in an email interview.

Across Mississippi, similar incidents have occurred. The state government does not provide funds for public defenders, putting already cash-strapped counties in a tight spot when it comes to providing lawyers.

The problem also extends beyond Mississippi. The New York Civil Liberties’ Union filed suit against the State of New York for not providing a statewide public defender system. The suit, recently endorsed by the Justice Department, alleges that the lack of a system strains budgets and leads to shortages of public defenders.

“The right to counsel is one of the core guarantees of the Bill of Rights, and yet, as countless cases and studies show, indigent defense systems across the country are facing significant challenges in meeting their Sixth Amendment obligations,” said Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Molly Moran in a statement released Sept. 25.

Back in Mississippi, the ACLU’s fight continues. The group says that the county continues to hold dozens of inmates without indictments. The suit asks the court to place a permanent injunction on the county requiring it to release unindicted inmates after 21 days and individuals who remain without counsel a week after their arrest.

Additionally, the suit’s class-action status will allow other detainees who believe that the county violated their rights to join the suit.

But, Burks and Bassett will not have to wait for a ruling to get out of the jail. As of Oct. 19, Burks’ record listed him as transferred out of the jail. Scott County released Bassett only two days after the ACLU filed the lawsuit.

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